When the household began to stir, she made ready a meal for Théoden, Éomer, and their guests; she knew they would be there momentarily to eat, and her heart started pounding in her chest. She told herself it was because she was excited about seeing Aragorn again. That may indeed have been partially true; she firmly pushed back any anxiety about seeing the Elf, telling herself he wasn’t relevant anymore. She had gone to him to lose her virginity; she was still a virgin; ergo, nothing had happened, Q.E.D.
Quietly the men began to file into the Great Hall; servants brought out smoking trenchers and flagons of warm ale. Her heart leaped when she saw Aragorn, and her eyes devoured his face from the shadows in which she hid; he looked much as he had the previous day, handsome and preoccupied and withdrawn. Beside him were Gimli the Dwarf and Gandalf the Grey Pilgrim. They sat with Théoden and Éomer and began to eat. Éowyn edged nearer, unnoticed.
“Where is Legolas, your friend?” asked her uncle of Aragorn. “I hope he is well; he was certainly quite wretched yesterday evening.”
“He said he was still a little under the weather,” answered Gimli in his gravelly voice. “White as a sheet and still very shaky.”
Théoden clucked his tongue, and Éomer said sympathetically, “Stomach illnesses are the worst to endure, especially before a long ride. I hope he’ll be up to it?” He turned to Gandalf and lowered his voice. “It is a shame we couldn’t – you know – to make him less – as you said – irritable.”
Gandalf chuckled at this, also lowering his voice. Éowyn strained to hear him as he said: “Don’t worry about that aspect of it! I caught sight of a woman leaving his rooms sometime after the third watch.”
The men all laughed coarsely, and Éowyn blushed. Her fingernails dug into the palms of her hands. Théoden, looking about to make sure none of his men could hear, asked, “Who was it? Could you see? One of the chambermaids, perhaps?”
“No, all I saw was long blonde hair; that could’ve been anyone,” said Gandalf, smiling. “I asked him about it this morning. He said it was only a young and inexperienced whore, no one of importance.”
Cheeks flaming, Éowyn fled the hall; she was angrier than ever.
Legolas stood cloaked and hooded beside Arod. Gimli sat on a stump nearby, cleaning his fingernails with the edge of his dagger. Aragorn was speaking quietly with Théoden and Éomer. The Éored was in ranks behind them; they only awaited Éowyn with the stirrup-cup to say farewell. Gimli looked anxiously up at his friend. Legolas had been very quiet when they’d gone to get him up; he’d been awake, huddled in a ball on his bed, and the evidence of a violent stomachache scummed up the chamber pot. All the bed sheets had been pulled off the bed and rolled into a messy heap on the floor; his tunic was clean, though slightly damp, and hanging by the fireplace, which roared with flame. He had spoken very little, only admitting the presence of the whore in his room when pressed by Gandalf; he seemed very shamefaced about it, though Aragorn had gently assured him that under the circumstances they had expected no more from him. At last they were ready to depart, and Gimli was glad; though Gandalf and Aragorn might believe the presence of oak leaves in the subtlety was an accident, Gimli was not so sure. He wanted Legolas out of Edoras as soon as physically possible.
Éowyn finally arrived, looking splendid as usual; she really was quite pretty, thought Gimli, in a pale, cold way. Much like the statuary he’d seen at Rivendell: Look, but don’t touch. Not a patch on the Lady of the Golden Wood, of course! Once a Dwarf had the luck to meet up with an Elven lady, there was no going back, as far as he was concerned.
Éowyn started speaking, and Gimli tried to pay attention to her, but what she was saying didn’t interest him much. He was a little disappointed she wasn’t to go with them, as a Dwarf didn’t understand Théoden’s reluctance to have a female go along. Dwarf women fought every bit as well as Dwarf men – better, in fact, when they were defending their homes – so they were quite naturally considered to be every bit as desirable as warriors as members of the other sex. And from the looks of her, Éowyn could be quite a formidable opponent.
The stirrup-cup was passed, though when she came to Legolas, Gimli saw his friend turn color, and he shook his head. Must still feel sickly, thought Gimli sadly. Éowyn passed him by and gave the cup to Gimli, who drank briefly, wondering at her dark scowl. Gimli looked concerned at the Elf, and edged over to Aragorn to have a word with him about the advisability of letting Legolas ride with them that day; he didn’t seem quite recovered in his opinion.
Seeing her opportunity, Éowyn came back to Legolas, smiling with every appearance of guileless affability; he stiffened and glowered down at her.
“We missed you at breakfast,” she said sweetly.
“I had no desire to eat,” he said, frowning.
Éowyn looked more closely at him. His scarf was wound around his throat, hiding the wounds she’d given him, and his hair, usually braided and pulled back, was loose and hung over his ears. She wondered if she’d marked him last night, and that was why he hid beneath the cloak. His eyes flickered away from her face, and he looked over at Aragorn, who was speaking to Gimli. He very much wished Gimli would come back so he wouldn’t have to face her. Sure enough, Gimli turned back towards them and started to walk over.
“So you are going to battle and glory!” said Éowyn, forcing a smile. “Well, I wish you well, friend Elf! I hope you are better-tempered when we meet again.”
“I might say the same of you,” retorted Legolas. “As for myself, I hope all of your dreams come true, and you die in battle so that I might never have to see you again.”
Éowyn swallowed the rejoinder on her tongue, as the Dwarf walked up and said, “Looks like we’re ready to go! Help me up on this four-footed thing, Legolas.”
Éowyn was about to reprimand Gimli for his disrespectful attitude toward horses when Legolas answered, “His name is Arod, Gimli, and he only consents to bear you because you are my friend.” The Elf turned his back on Éowyn and began assisting Gimli up onto the horse’s back, and Éowyn left abruptly, her mind a whirl of conflicting thoughts.
Éowyn had had eyes only for Aragorn when he and his Dúnedain had returned from Helm’s Deep; she didn’t even see the Elf and the Dwarf at first, as they were riding near the back with two other Elves, and made no attempt to speak to her. She had listened eagerly to Aragorn’s account of the battle, glorying in the mere fact he was blessing her with his attention; out of the corner of her eye she saw Legolas speaking with the twin dark-haired Elves, and she hoped he saw her, speaking so familiarly with the object of her desire. That would show him, she thought, that she was attractive to men, even if Elves didn’t know a good thing when they saw it! She found herself posing, moving her hair so that it flowed down her back, laughing, touching Aragorn’s hand. But the only Elf who noticed her was one of the dark twins; he looked curiously at her, then gave a sardonic smile and turned back to his golden-haired companion. Éowyn became a little irritable, and asked Aragorn what his plans were for the morrow.
She sat before her fire, head in her hands; her blood ran cold and she felt close to despair. The Paths of the Dead! Aragorn was lost to her then; no mortal man could survive the passageway through Dunharrow. It was useless; she might as well go away to die, because she couldn’t have the one she wanted. She wouldn’t be allowed to fight, or even to ride with her people; she’d have to sit like a paralyzed bird while the hunting dogs drew ever nearer, knowing immobility led to discovery, and flight to instant death.
No mortal man . . . Éowyn stood up, wrapping a thick cloak about her, and left her room. The guesthouses were smaller here in Dunharrow, and all of the companions would be sleeping together. She had tried to speak to him before he retired, and had gotten only riddles; though he had spoken kindly to her, she knew he did not want her with him. That hurt her, and made her angry too; she caught herself wondering what it would be like to have a man love her who believed she could do as she wished.
She paced back and forth in front of the guesthouses for a while, irresolute and confused; after an hour a white glimmer caught her attention from the corner of her eye, and she turned toward it.
The Elf was standing watching her; he was clad in pale clothes, which looked white in the moonlight. His long hair was colorless and his eyes were hooded. He looked slender and strong, untouched by the battle; even standing so still he emanated a glowing white light and an ethereal grace. Éowyn hated him for being so beautiful. Something that strange and inhuman ought to be ugly, like Orcs were ugly.
He seemed to hesitate, then walked toward her purposefully, though his fists were still clenched.
“My lady,” he said, voice stiff and unfriendly, and he bowed.
“Friend Elf,” she said sarcastically, curtseying back. “How disappointed you must be that war has not yet claimed my life.”
“I’ve changed my mind,” he said; “I think it will be more satisfying to watch you grow old and die while I look on, unchanging.”
Éowyn’s hands closed into fists. “Don’t push me too hard,” she warned him; “I’m in no mood for your insults.”
“Why?” asked Legolas, smiling slightly. “Is it because we ride to the Paths of the Dead, or because Aragorn told you that you couldn’t come with us?” When Éowyn only ground her teeth together in fury, he laughed softly and said, “I told you, didn’t I? I told you he wouldn’t choose you. And now he’s riding with the two who will be his brothers-in-law, Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond. He has chosen his side, and you aren’t on it!”
“Be quiet!” she shouted at him, arms trembling. “Quiet! I won’t hear it from you, I won’t!” And she turned and ran back to her house, hearing only his mocking laughter behind her.
It seemed as though a year had passed, though in truth it had only been a few days.
Legolas sat with Gimli and the two Hobbits, chatting merrily; even knowing Éowyn lay wounded in a room down the hall could not quench his high spirits. Now he knew what Galadriel had meant, when she’d warned him not to listen to the sea gulls. The longing pulled at him, filled him with a bittersweet joy. And knowing Minas Tirith was safe, at least for now, knowing Frodo and Sam were still hidden, knowing his two beloved Halflings had weathered the storm poured more happiness into him than he could hold, and the cup of his heart bubbled over. The Ring would be destroyed; Aragorn would claim the kingship; and he and Gimli could go home: All would be well, he was sure of it. And at the end of his friends’ days he would build a ship, and sail it down the River and out to the Sea, and then . . . oh, then! He laughed for pure joy, and Gimli and the Hobbits laughed along with him, though they didn’t know why; no one could restrain their mirth when they heard Legolas’ laughter; it had the sweet, contagious quality of a baby’s giggle.
Gimli rejoiced to see Legolas so hale. His pale cheeks were touched with roses, his eyes sparkled in the sunshine, and his skin glowed against his dark clothing; his hair, which he’d left carelessly hanging about his eyes since they’d gone to Helm’s Deep, was finally braided neatly back from his forehead, and Gimli could see the translucent shells of his ears again. And his smile! How Gimli had missed his smile! But for now the grim days were past, and they could laugh again together, and Gimli could amuse himself with the mental image of his father, when he would explain to him that he’d made friends with the Elven King’s son. He pictured a bristling beard, blood-suffused cheeks, gritted yellow teeth, hissing breath, hopping up and down in fury – Gimli almost laughed to think of it. And what would Thranduil think? Legolas had assured him his father would be taken aback but not angry; Gimli hoped his friend was right, for he had no desire to spend any time in the dungeons of Mirkwood.
Éowyn could hear their laughter floating down the hall. She recognized Meriadoc’s cheerful voice, and the piping answer of his small companion; she heard the loud guffaws from the Dwarf, but above all she heard the Elf, his voice as a background of sweetly chiming bells to all of their voices; merry, blithe, uncaring, unscathed. She remembered with bitterness his words to her: I think it will be more satisfying to watch you grow old and die while I look on, unchanging. Unchanging . . . Now she lay, cheated of her desires once more; she could not have Aragorn, she could not lose her virginity, she could not even die cleanly in battle. She had failed, failed at everything. Nothing, no man, no circumstance would ever lift her up; now she could only hope for death to come lately to her, when all others had been destroyed. Her uncle was dead; her brother would be king; and she would be left behind again: to be killed upon the ramparts of a foreign city if Aragorn failed, or to die a lonely spinster should he succeed. There was nothing left for her at all.